1,000 in­mates will be moved to A/C pris­ons

Judge’s order in heat law­suit sends 425 from Nava­sota to Austin jail.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Chuck Lin­dell clin­dell@states­man.com

Texas pri­son of­fi­cials told a fed­eral judge Thurs­day they will tem­po­rar­ily move 1,000 in­mates to air-con­di­tioned fa­cil­i­ties, in­clud­ing the Travis County State Jail, to com­ply with a court order re­quir­ing re­lief for heat-sen­si­tive pris­on­ers.

Last month’s order from U.S. District Judge Keith El­li­son of Hous­ton required pri­son of­fi­cials to pro­vide re­lief when the in­ter ior of the Wal­lace Pack Unit pri­son in Nava­sota reaches a heat in­dex of 88 de­grees or higher.

El­li­son gave Texas 15 days to find a rem­edy, say­ing pri­son of­fi­cials had been “de­lib­er­ately in­dif­fer­ent” to the risks posed by the heat, plac­ing the unit’s in­mates at sig­nif­i­cant risk of se­ri­ous harm each sum­mer. Tem­per­a­tures didn’t have to be com­fort­able, the judge said, just low enough to avoid in­jury and the prospect of cruel and un­usual pun­ish­ment.

Af­ter con­sid­er­ing its op­tions, the Texas Depart­ment of Crim­i­nal Jus­tice de­ter­mined that mov­ing the pris­on­ers was the best short-term so­lu­tion, spokesman Ja­son Clark said.

“Adding tem­po­rary air con­di­tion­ing in a pri­son not built for A/C would be costly, and it’s un­known whether untested equip­ment would bring the heat in­dex to a level required by the court,” Clark said.

The agency also de­ter­mined that re­work­ing al­ready air-con­di­tioned por­tions of the Pack unit to house ad­di­tional in­mates posed se­cu­rity risks and wasn’t a fea­si­ble op­tion for the num­ber of heat-sen­si­tive pris­on­ers iden­ti­fied by the judge, he said.

A dif­fer­ent long-term so­lu­tion will have to be found, Clark added, be­cause tem­po­rar­ily re­lo­cat­ing the pris­on­ers ev­ery sum­mer isn’t a sus­tain­able op­tion.

The Pack unit in­cludes a med­i­cal fa­cil­ity for el­derly in­mates and others with chronic med­i­cal con­di­tions who, lawyers said, are par­tic­u­larly sus­cep­ti­ble to heat-re­lated in­jury.

In his no­tice to the judge, state At­tor­ney Gen­eral Ken Pax­ton said most of the trans­ferred in­mates would be sent to two fa­cil­i­ties that al­ready have air con­di­tion­ing — about 425 to the Travis County State Jail in East Austin, and about 500 to the Di­boll Cor­rec­tional Center about 110 miles north of Hous­ton.

The re­main­ing in­mates will be sent to air-con­di­tioned ar­eas of other state pris­ons, in­clud­ing the Stiles Unit in Beau­mont, which can han­dle those with “sig­nif­i­cant med­i­cal needs,” Pax­ton told the judge.

The moves should be fin­ished in two weeks “and def­i­nitely within three weeks,” Pax­ton wrote, and in­mates who will be dis­placed by the re­lo­cated pris­on­ers will be sent to three pri­son units that don’t have air con­di­tion­ing.

Pri­son of­fi­cials will pro­vide tighter se­cu­rity in the Austin and Di­boll fa­cil­i­ties, adding tem­po­rary posts where needed, as­sign­ing ex­tra mo­bile pa­trols and se­cu­rity checks, and lim­it­ing the work as­sign­ments so in­mates wouldn’t have ac­cess to less-se­cure ar­eas, Pax­ton added.

Al­though Pax­ton had to file a re­sponse to meet the judge’s 15-day dead­line, the at­tor­ney gen­eral has also vowed to ap­peal El­li­son’s rul­ing, say­ing it could cost tax­pay­ers tens of mil­lions of dollars to in­stall air-con­di­tion­ing sys­tems.

“We’ll ap­peal the de­ci­sion and are con­fi­dent that TDCJ is al­ready do­ing what is con­sti­tu­tion­ally required to ad­e­quately safe­guard of­fend­ers from heat-re­lated ill­nesses,” he said last month.

The judge’s order came in re­sponse to a law­suit, filed by Pack unit in­mates in 2014, that said triple-digit sum­mer heat places their lives at risk.

“We’re go­ing to go at it one pri­son at a time, be­cause that’s what the law re­quires,” Austin lawyer Jeff Ed­wards said at the time. The Texas Civil Rights Project and the Univer­sity of Texas Civil Rights Clinic joined Ed­wards in draft­ing the law­suit.

In­mates in the Pack unit are housed in dorms with metal ex­te­rior walls that “hold heat like a parked car,” the law­suit said. With­out air con­di­tion­ing, in­door tem­per­a­tures “rou­tinely ex­ceed 100 de­grees in­side in­mate hous­ing ar­eas, threat­en­ing the health and wel­fare of all in­mates, es­pe­cially the el­derly, sick and dis­abled,” the law­suit said.

In his order, El­li­son noted that, al­though no heat-re­lated deaths have been re­ported at the Pack unit, 23 heat-re­lated deaths have been re­ported in Texas pris­ons since 1998.

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